To start I will just like to say these are what I felt to be mistakes when lunging, they are just my opinion from experience and research. Something that works for some horses won’t work for others. I have heard a lot quite recently that if you are not lunging correctly or with a purpose then you are better off not lunging at all. While I get where this is coming from and for the most part agree. Lunging constantly with your horse running round at the end of the rope with you stood in the middle and not aiming to have him or her trying to work correctly will eventually do more harm than good. However I don’t feel people shouldn’t feel guilty or beat themselves up for doing this on the odd occasion. If you have run out of time on a wet cold dark evening and just want to get your horse moving and blood pumping to the muscles then a little loose lunge in the arena is going to better than nothing. Sometimes it’s nice to let the horse blow off some steam and be a horse rather than pestering it about its every move. So from this I say variety and balance is key and don’t over-do one or the other. This leads me on to talk a little bit about my don’ts in lunging.
#1 My first one, which I have learnt from having youngsters is not having a solid groundwork foundation. I would never expect to my youngster or a horse that had never lunged before to go straight out on to a nice circle away from me and know exactly what I wanted of them. Before getting to this stage I would have taught walk cues in hand with me next to them with a lunge whip or my preferred bamboo in the opposite hand, if really needed I could give them a little tap. I would then make sure they know to stay level with me or just that one step behind , I don’t want them to be ahead of me as from that position I wouldn’t have control over speed. Lots of little halts and rein back will help with this. The whip/bamboo can be used in front of the horse to help ask for these. I would then sometimes teach trot in hand so that they learn the voice cues. This not only helps to teach them gaits and manners but it also helps to build their bond with you and gives them a confident start in their work.
#2 This point closely follows number one, and it’s my pet hate, not moving with the horse. When I lunge I never stand in the middle of the arena and let my horse go round me. Horses are herd animals and are used to having a leader, and they feel more comfortable in having us as their leader. As I previously said I teach the horse to work one step behind me, so using that principle I create my own circle on which I move around guiding the horse on their own. This not helps you to control pace (as you slow so should they and as you speed up they should too) but guiding them on an even circle will help them with their own self balance.
#3 Lunging with a bit. Now I am not saying a bit can’t be used whilst lunging I am saying not to lunge from the bit. If you use your lunge line attached or threaded through your bit you are more often than not creating a false bend. What tends to happen is the horse twists and tilts its head from the pull of the line on the bit rather than turning the whole head in flexion. It’s worth investing in a good leather cavesson, the ones with the fixed bar nose band are best. This then has a clip from the centre of the nose which then encourages the whole head to flex. A simple way to try this out is to hold your chin and pull it to the side, you will find you are inclined to tilt your head, now take hold of your nose and do the same, and you will find your head will turn and you will tilt a lot less. The cavesson can be placed over a headpiece with a bit should you wish to use any gadgets.
Finally a note to add, try to be conscious of stopping at the right time. By continuing to work the horse for too long you’re pushing the horse beyond its limit. The muscles become tired the work becomes sloppy and incorrect and the horse also remembers lunging as tiring and boring. But also, when lunging is cut short the horse hasn’t reached the relaxation or focus it needs to start moving correctly. The endorphin flow released by the forward-downward position hasn’t had chance to start and so the horse misses out on those “feel good” hormones that make lunging relaxing, pleasant and beneficial. The saying I stick to is ‘try to finish on a good note’, especially for a youngster, even if that good note comes only after 10 minutes finish there and then the next time ask for a bit more and increase the work and length of good work from there.